Remembering the Great Hunger Commemoration at Grosse île

In 1997, during the 150th anniversary of "Black '47," the worst year of the Great Hunger, many commemorations were held all around Ireland and the Irish Diaspora. I attended one of them on Grosse île and wrote the following about that experience.

Children of the Gael 
died in their thousands on this island 
having fled from the laws of foreign tyrants 
and an artificial famine in the years 1847-48. 
God's blessing on them. 
Let this monument be a token to their name 
and honour from the Gaels of America. 
God save Ireland.

(A translation of the Irish inscription on the Celtic Cross on Grosse Ile, seen left.)

On Saturday August 16, 1997, in Quebec City, Quebec province, Canada, close to 2,000 people came together under the auspices of the Ancient Order of Hibernians of Canada and the U.S. to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the "Summer of Sorrow," the worst year of An Gorta Mor (The Great Hunger), "Black '47." They came to commemorate one of the worst atrocities of that year full of catastrophes for the Irish race: the massive number of deaths at Grosse île quarantine station, 30 miles downriver from Quebec City, an island which the Quebecoise have called "Iile des Irlandais" ever since. The weekend also served as a celebration of sorts for the successful efforts of many Irish organizations, spearheaded by "Action Grosse île," to force the Canadian government to recognize the special significance of the Irish dimension of the island's history.

As people gathered on the quay in Quebec Saturday morning for the two boats that had been chartered for the trip to Grosse île, the skies opened and the umbrellas went up. Many in the crowd commented that somehow the dark wet morning seemed an appropriate beginning for the trip we were about to take; a trip back in time, a trip to a place that was witness to a part of the greatest atrocity that had ever been perpetrated on a European population until the Jewish holocaust of World War II. It was as if the very sky was weeping for the Children of the Gael on that morning.

As the boats approached the island the first thing that caught the eye of all on board was the massive Celtic Cross standing over the rock cliffs on the southwest side of the island. This monument, dedicated in 1909 by the AOH, draws the attention of all ships going up or down the St. Lawrence River.

As we disembarked from the ships piper Robert P. Lynch began to play a sad wailing tune, fitting to the calamity we had come to commemorate. On the island an Ecumenical Service for the souls of the dead was celebrated by Mgr. Andre Gaumond, Catholic Archbishop of Sherbrooke and Rev. Bruce Stavert, Anglican Bishop of Quebec. Rev. Stavert noted that the reaction of the Catholic and Anglican clergy and lay people of the area during the tragedy on Grosse île was one of the first examples of ecumenical cooperation.

After the service, we were split into smaller groups and were escorted around to the various sites on the island: the one remaining fever hospital from 1847 (Lazaretto); the Celtic Cross which was put up by the AOH in 1909; the Doctors Monument; and the most moving site on the island, the mass graves of the victims marked by small white crosses near Cholera Bay.

At the Doctors Monument, on a hillside directly above a mass grave thought to hold over 5,000 bodies, Dr. Michael Quigley, Historian of Action Grosse île, told us the story of the Doctors monument and of the poor souls buried nearby. The monument was built in 1848 by Dr. George Douglas, the Medical Superintendent of the island for two doctors who died prior to 1847 and four who died that year, three of them from Quebec and one, Dr. John Benson, from Co. Kilkenny, Ireland.

Dr. Benson arrived at Grosse île on the Wandsworth on May 19th and, perhaps because of his experience in fever hospitals in Ireland, he volunteered to help Dr. Douglas treat the sick. Dr. Benson had been evicted from an estate in Castlecomer, Co. Kilkenny. Dr. Quigley observed that the fact that a doctor had been evicted showed, "just how brutal the land relations (in Ireland) were at the time." Dr. Benson contracted typhus almost immediately and died on May 26th, one week after his arrival.

In speaking of the mass graves, Dr. Quigley, pointing out the ridges along the location of the graves, said, "it's hair-raising, how the grave sites replicate the lazy beds of the potatoes in Ireland." Quigley said that by July of '47 Dr. Douglas reported having, "a crew of eight men working dawn until dusk every day digging trenches and burying the dead three deep." By early August Dr. Douglas was forced to import dirt to the rocky island in order to bury any more bodies. In spite of that, rats were coming off the ships to feed on the cadavers. The estimates of the number of deaths on the island in 1847 is placed at a minimum of close to 9,000 and the numbers may have been much higher.

Later as we visited the one fever shed left from 1847 and walked up the steep hill to get to the location of the impressive Celtic Cross, the sky cleared and a bright sun came out. Perhaps the days weather, rainy, cold and miserable, followed by a clear bright sun, was a metaphor for the long journey of the Irish diaspora, from misery and abject poverty to pride and strength. The final ceremony before we left the island was the planting of a tree in honor of the victims of An Gorta Mor by officials of the AOH.

That night in Quebec the AOH organized a Ceili Mor and we celebrated the ultimate triumph of the descendants of those poor, ragged exiles of the Gael. Step dancers entertained, followed by a host of musicians and singers. It was a hooley, grand craic, in the old Irish tradition.

On Sunday morning we assembled at old St. Patrick's church on McMahon St in Quebec. Historian Marianna O'Gallagher told the crowd how the church had been built in 1832 by the Irish who had been gradually coming to Quebec since 1790. She revealed that there had been shelters set up against the side of St. Patricks in 1847. This days ceremonies were dedicated to honoring the people of Quebec, some of whom gave their lives on Grosse île, others who welcomed the destitute travelers into their city and still others who took in many of the estimated 2000 orphans of the "Black '47" immigration. Not only were these children taken into the homes of hundreds of Quebecoise, in a gesture that suggests a great sensitivity to how those children came to be orphans, many of them allowed the children to retain their Irish surnames as well , assuring that these names would be signposts of An Gorta Mor among the people of the province.

After dedicating a plaque on St. Patrick's, we marched in procession uphill for four blocks to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec. Within the procession were banners from numerous AOH groups and Irish county associations; one group dressed in black, portraying immigrants from the Hunger years, carrying a sign which said, "Famine Victims Fate" followed by a black coffin. At the Basilica a Solemn High Mass was celebrated by Monsignor Fortier, former Archbishop of Sherbrooke.

Following the mass, the final official activity of the weekend was a Thanksgiving Ceremony in appreciation to the people of Quebec for their kindness to the refugees of 1847 in the court yard of the Petit Seminaire de Quebec next to the Basilica. It had been a weekend to commemorate the suffering of our ancestors and the many untimely deaths visited on them by the vindictive oppressors of our people; but also a time to celebrate the ultimate triumph of those who lived and carried on.

Personal Observations of the Grosse île Commemoratlon

Fatherless and motherless, no brothers have I,
And all my little sisters in the cold grave lie;
Wasted with hunger I saw them falling dead --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.

Friendless and loverless, I wander to and fro,
Singing while my faint heart is breaking fast with woe,
Smiling in my sorrow, and singing for my bread --
Lonely and bitter are the tears I shed.

-- from "The Itinerant Singing Girl"
By Jane Francesca Wilde (Oscar Wilde’s Mother, left)

The strongest feeling I was left with from this pilgrimage is that this small plot of land, where so many of our people died and were buried anonymously, is the Auschwitz of the Irish holocaust in the Diaspora. Yes, there are many differences, the chief one being that the people running Grosse île tried their hardest to save everyone there, unlike the Nazis; but in spite of their heroic efforts the people died in their thousands. Three factors led to the death of those people on Grosse île: they were Irish, they were Catholic and they were ruled by the English government, a foreign government that had considered them less than human for hundreds of years. Consider for a moment the reasons the Jews were persecuted and killed during their holocaust; how different are they? During the days of the Penal Laws, an English judge once said, "English law does not recognize that any such person as an Irish-Catholic exists." During the Great Hunger, England proved that racist opinion had not changed.

For an Irish person, this is holy ground, a hallowed place now dedicated to one of the horrors of An Gorta Mor. A place where, unlike so many other abominations of the Hunger, the appalling results of England's 800 year criminal misrule of Ireland, a history which reveals the real cause of the so called "famine," are open and indisputable for any unbiased observer, even an English one such as Cecil Woodham-Smith, to see. The Ulster Plantation system, Oliver Cromwell's land clearances, the Penal Laws, and finally the policies of John Russell and Charles Trevelyan, all led to the Great Hunger and Grosse île as surely as Hitler's "Final Solution" led to Jewish Holocaust and Auschwitz. It just took longer.

(Right: Abbeystrowry Cemetery in Skibbereen, Co. Cork. This old world companion to the Grosse île cemetery is said to hold 9,000 victims in this open area. The dead buried at Grosse île ran from this tragic fate at home only to find it in Canada.)

As I walked over the undulating ground of the mass graves on Grosse île, through the rows of plain white crosses, several emotions ran through me . At first there was a profound sadness as I tried to imagine what the last few months of the lives of these men, women and children must have been like. Imagine it if you can, desperately trying to scrape out, not a living, but merely a continuing existence in Ireland; then either by choice (though a coerced choice at best) or as a result of a landlords eviction and clearance having to leave your native land. Then loading onto an overcrowded ship that was never designed to carry passengers; enduring an unspeakable month or more in the horrific environment of a coffin ship, with sick, dead and dying people all around and finally becoming sick yourself, perhaps just as the voyage was about to end. And finally being sent to the charnel house that was Grosse île in the summer of 1847; a place that must have been hell on earth during that "Summer of Sorrow." My sorrow I felt deepened as I thought of my time spent in Ireland and what kind, generous people I found them to be, and the majority of the victims here must have been the same sort of open, friendly people, but had lived for years in poverty while always sharing with each other the things they had until the day had come when they nothing left to share.

My thoughts then drifted to the people who had been most responsible for this genocide, the ones we can easily identify, at least: John Russell, Charles Trevelyan (left) and a few others. The English would put Earl in front of Russell's name and Sir in front of Trevelyan but I believe that, through their actions during the Great Hunger, they abrogated any right to a title. How can a person look at the row on row of their victims on Grosse île or one of the hundreds of mass graves in Ireland and then call Trevelyan, Sir? As my thoughts drifted to these men my emotions moved away from sorrow and toward anger. The phrases that kept running through my head were, "The bastards, the bastards, the sons of bitches, that did this to our people." These men that had forced our people to die in road side ditches or the black holds of stinking ships; with mouths green from eating grass and bellies swollen from starvation; or to die alone on an island in Canada, some completely nameless; to be thrown into a hole and buried with no one to weep or keen for their passing. "God damn them to Hell," I thought; these men who caused so much pain, anguish and grief and then lived their lives rich and content, well fed on the bounty of Ireland which was denied to the Irish, perhaps to die peacefully in their beds.

But the final emotion that overcame me was caused by what I saw here around me. Yes, many of the people buried in the ground we were walking had died alone and un-mourned at the time, and perhaps those bastards had lived out their lives content in their self-righteous lies. But look now , 150 years later, at the two thousand people who came from hundreds and even thousands of miles, to place flowers reverently on the graves of the victims, to recognize their pain and suffering, to acknowledge their sacrifices and sorrows, and pay tribute to the honor and dignity which they lived and died. Those two thousand people and millions more prosperous, productive people all over North America and other places in the world were a living legacy of those victims and a monument to their refusal to give up in the face of an act of God that was turned into a weapon of mass destruction and the anti-Irish prejudice they faced in the New World. In spite of it all, they survived and their descendants thrived.

(Right: A mid-19th century anti-Irish political cartoon from an American publication. If you click on it to see the larger version you see at the bottom the same complaint about not "assimilating" that we still hear about immigrants from some today.)

On May 15, 1847, the day she arrived at Grosse île, little 4 year old Ellen Kane, of Co. Mayo, became the first victim of the "Summer of Sorrow." What person who knows the real history of the abomination that was the Great Hunger could deny that this small child, and every other victim of An Gorta Mor, possessed more honor, more dignity, more integrity, more simple human decency than all the members of both houses of the English Parliament combined.

Were anyone to attempt to organize a tribute to John Russell or Charles Trevelyan in England today, who would show up? A handful of their descendants perhaps. The people those men scorned and murdered in life are the ones who are honored by millions in Ireland and in the diaspora now, while men like Russell and Trevelyan are forgotten by almost all except those who remember them with contempt.

Because we can bring two thousand people to Grosse île on a Saturday in August; because we have made the truth shine through darkness of the lies and coverups of 150 years, the anger left me. The final emotion that came over me as I looked around at the thousands there on Grosse île that day was pride in the courage and fortitude of our people 150 years ago and in the fact that we have not forgotten, and we never will. We will no longer be silent and ashamed of the fact that we didn't have the physical power to save ourselves from the ravages of a powerful, heinous government 150 years ago; we will continue to spread the truth of An Gorta Mor. In the end I felt a contentment come over me. Who has won the ultimate victory 150 years later? On the pages of history, Russell and Trevelyan have clearly been defeated by 4 year old Ellen Kane.

(Below: "Evicted" by Lady Butler)

Weary men, what reap ye? - Golden corn for the stranger.
What sow ye? - Human corpses that wait for the avenger.
Fainting forms, hunger-stricken, what see you in the offing?
Stately ships to bear our food away, amid the stranger's scoffing.
There's a proud array of soldiers - what do they round your door?
They guard our masters' granaries from the thin hands of the poor.
Pale mothers, wherefore weeping - Would to God that we were dead;
Our children swoon before us, and we cannot give them bread.

We are wretches, famished, scorned, human tools to build your pride,
But God will yet take vengeance for the souls for whom Christ died.
Now is your hour of pleasure - bask ye in the world's caress;
But our whitening bones against ye will rise as witnesses,
From the cabins and the ditches, in their charred, uncoffin'd masses,
For the Angel of the Trumpet will know them as he passes.
A ghastly, spectral army, before the great God we'll stand,
And arraign ye as our murderers, the spoilers of our land.

 --- "The Famine Years" by Jane Francesca Wilde


Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site

Views: 2887

Tags: An Gorta Mor, Commemorations, Famine

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on April 23, 2016 at 12:03pm

My Grandmother was wont to say " those Black and Tans were worse than any man at war; they woudl shoot people just for looking at them"  , that some of them were Irish in Tan uniforms, was the most appalling thing she woudl say... She had cause to say this... her friends son was shot down outside his own door, just standing there,...  

Comment by Ann McLaughlin on April 28, 2016 at 11:03am
I took my 2 young sons to Grosse Isle 2 years ago and it was a most memorable experience. Yes it is the Irish holocaust and more people must make the trip to ensure the govt doesn't close it down for cost reasons. The only access to the island is by tour boat and there is a Parks Canada crew that live and work there during the summer months for the tourists. They have a little trolley that drives around the island with bilingual guides. It stops at the various buildings: fever sheds, hospital, hotel for 1st class passengers. At the end we disembark and walk up a bluff to the giant Celtic cross that was built by God knows who, who had the idea to undertake such a project at the turn of the Century. Wild Blueberries grow beneath the cross - but no where else on the island!
Beneath the cross lies a vast lumpy green meadow, the mass grave where the Irish were buried. It's so sad and unspeakably desolate. The govt built a memorial wall similar to the Vietnam war wall, inscribed with the thousands of Irish names and ages of those who died. Meticulous records were kept of those arriving.
There was a handful of fresh wreaths laid at the memorial, which I was surprised to see, since these souls have long been forgotten by most. The guide told me a group from Ireland had passed through a few days earlier. I thought that was wonderful that these people were not completely forgotten.
Throughout out 4-hr visit, the weirdest things happened to us. Since we were the only English speakers, we were told to sit at the back of the trolley for the eng tour. Then the French loud speakers konked out. We kept getting separated from the group as if we were being led into different parts of the buildings. Turn around and everyone was gone.... Then the trolley stopped at the bathrooms. My youngest son got locked into a stall. The guides tried everything to get the door unlocked. Push, pull you name it, the lock wouldn't budge! They called for the maintenance guy on their walkie talkies and got nothing but static! The guides were starting to panic and told everyone this never happens! People were getting spooked so they all left on the trolley to get help and one guide stayed behind. I told my son not to be scared that some little Irish girl thinks your cute and wants you to stay longer and play. Lol. Seconds later the door unjammed and opened. The maintenance crew turned up and we got a ride back to the wharf in their pickup. We spent the rest of our time in the gift shop.
After that day I think the Irish are still there. So don't forget them and go for a visit .
Ann McLaughlin

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 15, 2017 at 10:50am

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on May 16, 2017 at 7:44am

Beautiful remainder for all of us Ex-pats that we have our own Genocide to recall.. Thank you Joe and Ann McLaughlin for that wonderful  antidote of your visit 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on May 16, 2017 at 7:46am

The song is haunting and a tear jecker Thank you Joe for posting 


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